Takoma Park’s new 16- and 17-year-old voters push a Cheech and Chong agenda

Correction: In an earlier version of this column, the second reference to Pat Loveless, Takoma Park’s peace delegate, mistakenly referred to him as “she.” This version has been corrected.

Petula Dvorak
Columnist May 16, 2013

Come on, people. Have a little faith in our youth.

Often ridiculed as the People’s Republic of Takoma Park, the alt-city and “nuclear-free zone” made history yet again this week, becoming what the National Youth Rights Association claims is the only municipality in the nation to grant 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in local elections.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Across the region, non-Takomans chortled.

“This is the enfranchisement of Beavis and Butt-head,” one woman commented on an article about the 6 to 1 council vote.

Fred Schultz, the lone City Council member to vote against the amendment Monday night, harrumphed that he has never seen a teen at any council meeting to speak on an issue. Ever. So why give teens the right to vote?

Even some teens were skeptical.

“No way. Seriously? They’re going to let them vote? How dumb,” said a 16-year-old student at Montgomery Blair High School. This girl, who lives in Silver Spring, has not been granted teen suffrage and frankly doesn’t want it.

“We don’t care about anything like that,” she said.

Other kids said it was just a ridiculous way to amplify the parental vote, because most kids will vote the way their parents do.

I don’t know. I thought teens were rebellious.

“Oh, no — I would vote the way my parents vote,” declared a 16-year-old girl whose parents work at the National Institutes of Health and the State Department.

“Yeah, I think my parents vote for good, and I’d vote the way they do,” said her friend, the daughter of an economist.

These are the Takoma Park kids who will make City Council members proud of their leadership.

Imagine how empowering it will be for teens to have a say, to head to the polls with their parents in November, establishing a habit of civic engagement and getting a real-life look at government in action. It’s truly a learning moment.

When the council announced the proposed amendment to the city charter, responsible kids, anxious to partake of the civic process, lined up to advocate. Or at least Tommy Raskin did.

“We cultivate interest in democracy by giving people opportunities to participate,” Raskin, 18, a member of his school’s Young Democrats group, told the Gazette newspaper. “It’s a poor argument to say that we ought not to give 16-year-olds the right to vote because they’re not interested in issues.”

It doesn’t hurt that he’s the son of state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery).

If there’s a place in the country where this will work, Takoma Park is it.

This is the land of kids who create sub-Saharan clean-water wells on summer break. Their lemonade stands fund microloans to Amazonian tribeswomen. My kid was recently invited to a laser-tag birthday party by a 9-year-old who asked that, in lieu of presents, his pals donate to the So Others Might Eat food program.

Yeah. Those kids.

“These 16-year-olds are more learned than kids were years ago,” Pat Loveless said at this week’s Takoma Park council meeting. By the way, he’s the city’s official peace delegate. And with the Free Burma Committee recently dismantling, this voting-rights campaign is a good place for all those good vibes to go.

But I didn’t want to hear just what the superstar kids of Takoma Park had to say. I wanted to find Takoma Park’s teenage Joe the Plumber. What is the kid who hangs outside 7-Eleven going to do with this new and historic power that the city elders have granted him?

“Really? We get to vote? No waaaaay,” a 16-year-old 7-Eleven denizen said.

So I asked her if she knows who the mayor is.

“Um, no,” she said.

She looked over at her friend.

“No?” the friend answered, looking at me as though I’ve asked her for the name of Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff.

The answer is Bruce Williams. “My mom and dad are friends with him, so I’d vote for him!” said a teen, bouncing past us.

So, what are the sexy municipal issues they’re passionate about? The storm-water management budget? The small-community grant ordinance?

Legalize it!” a 17-year-old boy urged.

His pals nearby fist-pumped. “Legalize! Legalize!” they woofed.

I must’ve looked puzzled.

“Marijuana. Duh,” one of the teens said.

Ah, of course. A pressing issue in municipal politics everywhere.

All afternoon, I prowled bus stops, strip malls, parks and sidewalks looking for America’s youngest new voters. In every single group, only one legislative issue came forth, and it was presented with great vigor: “Legalize it!”

Beavis and Butt-head? Nope.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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